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The Mind as a Garden
“You just can’t stop talking, can you?” my science-oriented friend asks me.
“Um… no, I can’t. There is just too much going on.” I didn’t realize I had just spent the last 30 minutes ranting on about how the Founding Fathers were just so totally awesome, especially Alexander Hamilton, not mention the fact that he was not a president of the United States, but rather the Secretary of the Treasury, blah, blah, blah. But I felt somehow aglow, enlightened, and enlightening the world with my precious facts, numbers, and “old dead guys”. Ninety-five percent of the time people say, “History? Oh… how lovely.”
But my name, Lena, means “light,” or “light-bearing one.” I bear a zealous torch of knowledge of history, one that is often misunderstood, much like my name is often mispronounced. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been very much alone in my historical interests. I have plenty of stories to relate, but none stands out more so than the stern rebuke I received from my teacher. The year, 8th grade; the class, American history; the teacher, a strange fellow. Word had gotten out to him that the “history freak,” as I was disparagingly referred to, was going to be in his class.
He came up to me at the start of the school year’s first history class. This was a big deal, as it was my first legitimate history class ever. Students lounged around me, continuously checking the clock to see when this torture would be over. I was excitedly flipping through the pages of a dusty, graffitied textbook, eyes glued to the page. The student sitting next to me could tell that this was going to be a long year. The teacher entered the room, and hurriedly approached me, in the fashion that indicated something calamitous was about to occur. “Hi, you must be Lena.” He pronounced it Leeeena, a foreshadowing of things to come. “Great! Nice to meet you, I’ve heard you like American history,
“Oh yes! I love American history! Especially the Founding Fathers,
“Yes, yes, great. Great, great. But I have to ask you a really big favor that would be beneficial to all of us.”
“Oh, what?” I asked excitedly.
“Perhaps… perhaps…” He was getting progressively uncomfortable. “I need you.. I need you to not talk in class.” Well, this was news! “But what I mean is that you can talk! I mean, but… I think we could all learn better if you kept your contributions… um, how should I say it? Minimal, yes, minimal!” Talk about awkward.
“Oh, ok.” What was I supposed to say to that? Essentially, my history teacher told me to be as silent as the textbook in front of me, that I was an impediment to the learning of my classmates. He wasn’t even that diplomatic about it. My mind began frenetically analyzing the situation: Did I talk that much about history? What did my former social studies teacher say? How bad was it really? Suddenly, my torch, borne so proudly, flames bouncing and flickering, was suddenly snuffed out, just like that.
I was stunned, and not just a little bit hurt. So for the next four months or so, I sat in the back of the room, lips sealed tight, eyes like lasers, everything practically bursting at the seams. He’d ask a question- nobody would answer- and I continued to stare at him.
This was a violation of my right to be geekily annoying!
Eventually, but only eventually, he got the point, and I deeply exhaled all that was building up inside. At the end of the year, he came up to me and said, “Thank you for your work in class. It was nice having you.”
But it wasn’t always like that. Sometimes, there was that great moment of illumination, like the day we ventured into the garden…
All of nature was in equilibrium the day that we went out into the school’s organic garden for some independent reading in English class. Early September, the birds were chirping, the sun was shining, pollen in the breeze was irritating my immune system. We set up folding chairs all around, and sat down to read in the divine air. I observed the garden around me- the beds were barren, the last fruits having been plucked, and the season was coming to a quiet close. But on the far side, a few promising leaves poked out of the ground. Ms. Flory, the school’s garden coordinator, walked in on her usual rounds, spade in hand, and began to work on them. By this point, the garden was still somewhat of a beckoning, captivating stranger to me. I was a so-called GAPer – Garden Assistant Program- but I had never actually worked with the plants before, not entirely inclined to get into the dirt. But something captured my attention, as she began to pull long weeds from the ground, and piling up small bulbs into a pile. I shut my book and hoisted myself from the unwieldy folding chair. What operations could possibly occur in this season? As my classmates focused on the task at hand, I rushed to the shed, grabbed a pair of work gloves, and plopped down next to her.
“Can I help out?”
“Sure! Grab a spade.”
“We’re transplanting the strawberries!”
Strawberries? I didn’t see any strawberries! With my knowledge, I thought strawberries were grown in the summer, and were above ground. I didn’t even know they were ‘transplanted.’ I began to question becoming a GAPer, not having an iota of knowledge.
“Where are they?”
“Why are you moving them?”
“Because they have a short window in which to grow in the spring. Take out those nasty-looking weeds, and pull up those plants there and place them in the pile.”
I eagerly began tugging and pulling at the stubborn leaves. After a moment of struggle, in which it seemed the weeds were going to win, I thrust from the ground, much to my surprise, small, shriveled purple bulbs.
“Aren’t they so cool?! They become ‘real’ strawberries in the spring.”
I admired them closely. How cool was this? This was just the start, and within a single moment, a door had been opened into a whole new world. This was learning at its best, the very essence of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, to reach out to different subjects, to leave one’s mind open to the possibilities as one’s garden is left open to the sky and nature. In a way, it was the rite of initiation into this space. I was carrying my torch into a dark cave, raising it up ever higher, as this new realm began to unfold.
I learned many things that day: I was a GAPer, not because I knew every species of plant, or every seasonal planting, but rather because I had the capability to shine a light on something new. On this journey, I learned my thoughts on the natural world would be challenged and encouraged, and I would become the better person for it, leading the way
Oh, and that strawberries grow underground.